Wireless Networking Protocols Explained

Thank 802.11 for your wireless lifestyle

A protocol is a set of rules or agreed-upon guidelines for communication. When communicating, it is important to agree on how to do so. If one party speaks French and one German, the communications will most likely fail. If they both agree on a single language, communications will work.

The 802.11 family of wireless networking protocols is the standard for wireless networking and makes it possible for devices to interact.

Couple with wireless devices sharing information

Izabela Habur / Getty Images

Wireless Networking Protocols

TCP/IP is a collection of protocols that each have their own particular functions or purpose. These protocols were established by international standards bodies and are used in almost all platforms worldwide so that all devices on the internet can communicate successfully. The 802.11 wireless networking protocols have gone through several iterations, each one surpassing the previous version in capability and speed.

Not all equipment functions with every version, so it's important to know which protocol version your equipment uses. In general, newer equipment supports the most recent of the protocols, and older equipment may not. Typically, equipment supports multiple protocols. For example, equipment tagged 802.11ac/n/g is compatible with three protocols.

802.11ax Protocol (Wi-Fi 6)

The most recent release of the 802.11 protocols is 802.11ax, also called Wi-Fi 6. It accommodates a growing number of devices and applications by increasing network efficiency to meet mobile and IoT devices.

Wi-Fi 6 features orthogonal frequency division multiple access (OFDMA) and is equipped for multiuser multiple-input, multiuser multiple-output (MU-MIMO), which allows more devices to connect simultaneously.

802.11ax delivers greater efficiency and security than previous versions of the protocol. Its theoretical maximum transfer speed is about 10 Gbps—30 percent faster than Wi-Fi 5. 802.11ax is backward compatible with the other protocol versions.

802.11ac Protocol (Wi-Fi 5)

802.11ac, also known as Wi-Fi 5, added Dual Band support to its tool chest. It can use the 2.4 GHz band and the 5 GHz band at the same time. 802.11ac is approximately three times faster than 802.11n. This protocol provides support for eight streams, up from four in 802.11n. 802.11ac uses only the 5 GHz band.

802.11n Protocol (Wi-Fi 4)

802.11n uses multiple-input/multiple-output (MIMO) technology and a wider radio frequency channel than its predecessors. It increases a wireless local area network (WLAN) speed and improves reliability. Operating at 600 Mbps, it offers 10 times the speed of 802.11g and uses both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands.

802.11g Protocol

The 802.11g standard improves on 802.11b. It uses the same crowded 2.4 GHz shared by other common household wireless devices, but 802.11g is faster and capable of transmission speeds up to 54 Mbps. Equipment designed for 802.11g still communicates with 802.11b equipment. However, mixing the two standards is not usually recommended.

802.11a Protocol

The 802.11a standard operates in a different frequency range. By broadcasting in the 5 GHz range exclusively, 802.11a devices run into less competition and interference from household devices. 802.11a is capable of transmission speeds up to 54 Mbps like the 802.11g standard.

802.11b Protocol

802.11b was the first wireless standard to be widely adopted in homes and businesses. Its introduction is credited with the rise in popularity of hotspots and staying connected during travel. Equipment using 802.11b was comparatively inexpensive and built into many laptops.

The 802.11b wireless communication standard operates in the unregulated 2.4 GHz frequency range. Unfortunately, so do many other devices, such as cordless phones and baby monitors, which can interfere with wireless network traffic.

The maximum speed for 802.11b communications is 11 Mbps, a speed that has been exceeded many times over in newer versions of the protocol.

About Bluetooth

Another well-known wireless standard is Bluetooth. Bluetooth devices transmit at relatively low power and have a range of only 30 feet or so. Bluetooth networks also use the unregulated 2.4 GHz frequency range and are limited to a maximum of eight connected devices. The maximum transmission speed goes to 1 Mbps.

There are other standards in development in this exploding wireless networking field. Do your homework and weigh the benefits of any new protocols with the cost of the equipment for those protocols and then choose the standard that works best for you.

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